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yan Murphy’s Deregulating Desire models an integrative analysis in the examination of the ways gender, sexuality, race, and class have played out in worker activism among flight attendants in the United States. This book is an important contribution to the fields of labor studies and studies in gender and sexuality, showing how flight attendants used worker activism to fight for sexual subjectivity and resist the limitations of dominant gender roles. The theoretical contribution of this book is developed through close ethnographic attention to the stories of key flight attendant activists, contextualized in a rich analysis of changing political and economic contexts.
My attention was first drawn to the politics of flight attendant labor by debates around “Patient Zero” in AIDS/HIV studies in the 1980s. In his popular 1987 book And The Band Played On, journalist Randy Shilts suggested that an Air Canada flight attendant was the vector of transmission for HIV infection into the North American gay male population. The flight attendant had access to sexual freedom through travel to the gay world’s hot spots, which Shilts suggested created an important route for the spread of AIDS. Douglas Crimp (1988: 245-246) sharply criticized this account:
“Randy Shilts provided the viciously homophobic portrait of “Patient Zero” because his thriller narrative demanded it, and the news media reported the story and none of the rest because what is news and what is not is dictated by the form news takes in our society.”
If we leave aside the horrifying moralistic judgments of Shilts’s account, there is an important linkage between work as a flight attendant and a certain kind of sexual freedom. Ryan Murphy shows that the connection between flight attendant work and sexual freedom was no accident, but the result of deliberate and sustained struggles by worker activists in the field. Beginning in the 1960s and early 1970s, flight attendant worker activists took on employers and their own unions in important rank-and-file struggles to win the wages, security and conditions that might make it possible to live gender and sexuality differently.
The upsurge in labor and social movement activism in the late 1960s and 1970s had a galvanizing impact among flight attendants, who faced very low wages due to prevailing conceptions of women as secondary earners rather than primary breadwinners. This activism peaked in the militancy of 1975-76, which included a 4-month strike against National Airlines. The pursuit of decent wages and pay equity required a mobilization of rank-and-file activism that confronted the Transport Workers Union (TWU) leadership as well as corporate management. Flight attendant Janet Lhuillier recalled an encounter with a representative of the union leadership, “The little man the TWU sent looked like a beat up bird….And he showed up with two HUGE bodyguards (51).
Flight attendants won important victories in the 1970s, but their activism faced the challenge of a rapidly changing political and economic context in the airline field and more broadly. Murphy is very successful at setting the micro-level politics of rank-and-file mobilization in the broader context of the rise of neo-liberalism and the massive restructuring of the airline industry. By the 1980s, the relatively recent gains of flight attendants were viciously attacked by management and the state. The defeat of a 1986 strike against TWA was an important moment in the drive by employers to undermine the pay, security and work conditions of flight attendants. Murphy points out that this defeat was not inevitable, but was in part produced by the lack of solidarity from the International Association of Machinists leadership, despite an initial walk out by many union members (110).
In my view, one of the great contributions of this book is to combine this analysis of worker activism around wages, working conditions and job security with a rich account of flight attendant struggles for sexual subjectivity and against the limitations of dominant gender roles. The airlines responded to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s by intensifying the sexual objectification of flight attendants. National Airlines, for example, advertised on television using a stewardess and the slogan “Come fly me!” Employers put a premium on the sexualization of flight attendants:
“To further increase the likelihood that stewardesses were young, attractive, and sexually available to male passengers, some carriers augmented previous marriage bans with new rules that grounded stewardesses on their thirtieth birthday, a policy that forced workers to sacrifice their careers and forfeit their pensions” (7).
Fight attendant worker activism challenged this sexual objectification along with wage differentials between women and men. Murphy argues that feminism and lesbian/gay liberation provided flight attendants with “a new set of conceptual tools to contest these inequities” (22). This battle for sexual subjectivity in the face of objectification came in part from the particular character of flight attendant work:
“Unlike teaching, nursing, or administrative work, becoming a stewardess gave middle-class white women unprecedented access to an urban, cosmopolitan world, one usually reserved for businessmen” (22).
Flight attendant Janet Lhuillier recalled, “We did these trips that went Boston-Paris-Athens. We had a ball. It was fabulous…” Gay men working as flight attendants could spend time in the centers of a vibrant gay scene that tended to be highly concentrated in particular large cities.
No one was having a ball actually doing the job, but the work provided access to ways of living that opened up particular possibilities. This required a lot of hard struggle. Murphy traces the story of Paula Mariedaughter, who attended the 1973 founding convention of Stewardesses for Women’s Rights. At one point, she was kicked off a flight for insubordination when she refused the captain’s order to put on lipstick. However, a rising of union rank and file activists forced the airline to reinstate her with compensation (29).
These fights for sexual subjectivity and against constricted gender roles included struggles for pay equity, security of employment through the aging process and domestic partnership rights. More recently, it has also included resistance to airline practices of policing the personal appearance of racialized employees.
Women, queers and racialized employees used worker activism to pursue goals of sexual subjectivity within the context of an occupation that provided mobility and opened up certain possibilities.
After tracing the difficult trajectory of struggle against eroding conditions in the face of neoliberal restructuring, the epilogue of the book identifies new possibilities in flight attendant activism in the 21st century. The unionization of Virgin America flight attendants in 2014 marks the rise of a new generation of activists who entered the field after many of the gains of the 1970s were eliminated and casualization was spreading. This new wave of organizing featured racialized workers more prominently.
This book marks a real contribution to our understanding of the relationship between paid employment, worker activism and freedom struggles around gender, sexuality and racialization. Murphy combines rich and integrative theoretical analysis with great ethnographic detail and great strength at mapping the political and economic context of the historical trajectory. This is a model that should inspire further research examining the specific relations between the character of the labor process in different occupations, histories of worker activism and the struggle for sexual subjectivity.